Skip to main content

Principles for Retaining Volunteers Part 5: The Five Basic Rules

By Daniel C. Olsen, Senior Consultant, Special Districts Association of Oregon

What are the attractors of your organization? What brings volunteers to your organization and, more importantly, what keeps them with you?

Is it your image, reputation, traditions, rituals or Esprit de corps (a feeling of pride and common loyalty shared by the members of a particular group). Perhaps, is it your code of conduct?

What are the rules your organization lives by? What is the code of your organization? The code of conduct for your organization is a thread which runs throughout your organization. It may be formal or informal.

I offer the Five Basic Rules for your consideration. I have used these “Rules” in organizations that I have led. I have used them in officer development programs and other trainings.

The impetus for these Rules was hearing football coach Lou Holtz and his presentation “Do Right”.  The development of these rules has been influenced by Vince Lombardi, John Wooden, Walt Disney and others throughout my career. Overtime, I found common threads among many leaders and their philosophies.

I put these rules down in writing and shared with others that I worked with in a number of organizations. The Rules are simple and easy to understand. However, they can sometimes be a challenge to practice every day.

They apply at a personal level and organizational level. They are expectations we have of others and must have of ourselves.

The Five Basic Rules are:

  1. Do what is right
  2. Do your best
  3. Treat others with dignity, understanding and respect
  4. Leave the situation better than the way you found it
  5. Help others be successful


1.     Do what is right

People may ask what is right? Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is it legal?
  • Is it moral?
  • Is it ethical?

As I stated before, this is important both at the personal level and the organizational level.

Oregon Governor Tom McCall (Term as Governor 1967-1975) would ask the question about legislation or programs, “Is this right for the people of our State?”  He understood the importance of leaders doing what was right for the people they represented, not just those that voted for him.

This practice, Do What Is Right, answers the question you have of others and others have of you: Can I trust you?

2.     Do your best

Doing your best is about your commitment to excellence.

John Wooden talked of “making each day your masterpiece”.  This does not mean that every day will be perfect. But your effort to do so is. It means that you make your best effort, regardless of the circumstance.

Coach Lombardi stated,” Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.”

3.     Treat others with dignity, understanding and respect

Each day, we interact with others. Sometimes it is for brief moment. Sometimes for a longer time. It may be relaxed. It may be somewhat tense. During each of those interactions how do we treat others?

Keep in mind these three words: dignity, understanding and respect.

  • Dignity-the quality of being worthy
  • Understanding-sympathetically aware of other people's feelings
  • Respect-demonstrating courtesy towards one another by our words and actions; consideration for the feelings, rights, or traditions of others.

4.     Leave the situation better than you found it

The mission of an emergency service organization is to do exactly that: leave the situation better than the way you found it. It can be during an emergency response. Or it can be in a non-emergency setting. Possibly someone asking for information or other assistance.

Walt Disney was committed to excellence and to giving his customers more than they expected. His term for this was “plussing.”  “Plussing” was a way of making an idea even better.

Walt Disney’s philosophy was simple: “Get the job done, but never sacrifice quality.” The question was how to make it better. Maybe, you add to it.  Maybe you delete something.  Sometimes less is better. But your purpose is to make it better.

5.     Help others be successful

As Chief James Groat would say, “Give others a bump up the ladder of life; not a knock down”.  This could be a helping hand. It could be a kind word or compliment. It could be encouragement. It could be a bit of advice that helps.

There are those who are jealous of another’s success. There are those who seek to criticize individuals for their own gain. There are those who take credit for the work of someone else. These actions are detrimental. It erodes away at teamwork and trust.

Helping others to be successful is about teamwork and the success of the team or organization.

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual. Individual commitment to a group effort – that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.” -Vince Lombardi

Why can these Five Basic Rules help to retain volunteers for your organization? The Five Basic Rules provides a unifying bond among your personnel…all personnel. They provide guidance of how your organization conducts itself. They provide guidance of how your members interact with members of your organization. They provide guidance of your members interact with the community and people you serve.